Brussels Terror Attack: Stoking Latent Islamophobia is ISIS’ Plan

Brussels offers compelling reason to Indian security agencies to be prepared for such exigency, by C Uday Bhaskar

5 min read
Brussels Terror Attack:  Stoking Latent Islamophobia is ISIS’ Plan

The multiple terror attacks that targeted the airport and a metro station in Brussels – the symbolic capital of the European Union – has resulted in the death of at least 30 innocent citizens of different nationalities and left over 180 injured. Belgium is in a state of shock and anguish.

The ISIS (Islamic State) has claimed responsibility for the attack and the link with the Paris terror attacks of 13 November 2015 is more than discernible.

The Eiffel Tower is illuminated with the Belgium national colors black, yellow and red in honor of the victims of the Brussels terror attack, in Paris, March 22, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Link With the Paris Attack

It may be recalled that on 18 March, the local police had carried out an extensive week-long search in Brussels in cooperation with their French counterparts and had finally arrested Salah Abdeslam – considered Europe’s most wanted terror suspect in the wake of the November Paris attacks.

At the time of the arrest, given the profile of the suspect, it was expected that there would be an ISIS reprisal but clearly the Belgian intelligence and Brussels police were unable to prevent the carnage that took place on Tuesday. That this was a well-planned and professionally coordinated attack is more than evident in the pattern of the bomb blasts – the airport witnessed two explosions followed by one at the local metro.

The ISIS, at the time of the Paris attacks and the subsequent French response, had threatened to avenge the death of their cadres and one may conjecture that Brussels is part of this bloody reprisal.

In this frame grab taken from VTM, armed police officers take part in a raid in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, Belgium on Friday, 18 March 2016. (Photo: PTI)

Lax Authorities to be Blamed?

Predictably the global community has extended its support to Belgium as it copes with the current crisis, and this is similar to the solidarity expressed in the case of France in November 2015.  Prime Minister Modi is part of the collective global leadership that has condemned the attack and the fact that the Indian PM is slated to visit Brussels in March end for an India-EU Summit has drawn further attention to the terror challenge posed by the IS and its ideological affiliates.

While the report of the investigators will shed valuable light on the chinks that were exploited by the perpetrators in relation to Brussels, some strands merit objective scrutiny. Belgium has long been perceived as a hub of Islamic terror activity and this goes back to the pre-9/11 period. For instance, some significant Afghanistan-related operations were conceived and planned from this European hub.

Police officers block off a street during a raid in the Molenbeek neighbourhood of Brussels, Belgium on 18 March 2016. (Photo: PTI)

Paradoxically, Belgium has a relatively porous border with its larger neighbours and the local police, intelligence and immigration force levels are very modest in comparison to other EU states.

The Paris attack was traced to the disaffected immigrants of France-Belgium and given the various leads linking these individuals with the ISIS and the reported alert post-Abdeslam’s arrest – it is not clear as to why the local security agencies were unable to either preempt – or neutralise the perpetrators at the site of the attacks – namely the airport and the local metro station.


Effective Counter-Terror Measures

  • Belgium has a relatively porous border; local police, intelligence and immigration force levels are modest compared to other EU states.
  • ISIS is going for soft targets in Europe which will stoke latent Islamophobia against minorities.
  • Better media management by keeping details about Paris attack below the radar could have prevented Brussels from happening.
  • For India, the attack is a compelling reason for closer scrutiny by the security agencies.
A special forces police officer guards as a police convoy and ambulance thought to be carrying captured fugitive Salah Abdeslam arrives in Bruges, Belgium, March 19, 2016. (Photo: PTI)

Strategy of the ISIS

Enhancing the Belgian counter-terror capacity and harmonising it with countries like France, Germany and the EU as an entity is imperative and the question that will be asked is why this did not happen over the last four months.

The ISIS is following a diabolical path wherein soft targets in Europe are being targeted and this in turn will stoke latent Islamophobia and deep anger against Muslim immigrants and refugees – a sentiment that will no doubt be exploited by the right-wing constituency in European politics.

A harsh reprisal will in turn add to the pool of disaffected and radical youth among the Muslim minority groups in Europe, who would in turn, be drawn to the ideology of the ISIS. A vicious cycle appears inevitable.

People mourn for the victims at Place de la Bourse in the center of Brussels, Tuesday, March 22, 2016. (Photo: AP)

Need for Media Management

The current political determination in the EU to address the complex tangle of Islam-related terrorism and violence – of which Brussels is only the tip of a murky iceberg – appears effete. Paris seemed to be a tipping-point and led to a certain political focus and consensus in relation to Syria and the ISIS but this could not prevent Brussels from happening.

Many hard questions need to be asked about the IS and the level of global resolve, cooperation and multi-disciplinary competence to quarantine this scourge and one element is media management. What if the post-Paris investigation and the arrest of the suspects including the prime accused had been kept well below the radar and unwarranted media triumphalism kept at bay? Would this have allowed the police and the intel agencies to be more effective?
President Barack Obama, first lady Michelle, stand with Cuba’s President Raul Castro, right, during a moment of silence for the victims of attacks in Brussels, Cuba, March 22, 2016. (Photo:PTI)

Lessons for India

For India which is still grappling with the Mumbai 26/11 investigation and now the Pathankot fall-out, the connection with the EU predicament is palpable.

It is likely that there will be other Paris-Brussels type of attacks in Europe and elsewhere, depending on the manner in which the ideology of the ISIS finds adherents among the gene-pool of the disaffected and the ideologically distorted.

Every terror attack warrants close scrutiny by the security agencies globally to arrive at lessons learnt, so as to reduce the probability of the next such exigency – and the Brussels-India correlation is a part of this continuous endeavour.

(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies.)

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